The Sweet Sunrise docks without issue. Nobody challenges us as we walk down the gangway, which should not be happening. I was joking earlier, but perhaps it is true. They may all be dead. Without a word, the Knights and their staff form a small convoy and as we walk directly to the residence of the Lancaster clan, I do my best to hide my reaction.
I do not recognize the city.
The mix of blacks and whites is the same, and French is still prevalent, yet now German and Irish have joined the mix. Gas-powered lamps have popped up from the ground and added their unwavering light to the lanterns and candles, reflecting on the gold and silver of jewelry on wrists and earlobes. Fashions clash and compete in a carnival of colors. The smell of spice, alcohol and sweat has not changed, but it is now multiplied to match the tide of humanity clogging the streets, glad to be out after a day of suffocating heat. Only the architecture, showing hints of Spanish influence, has not changed so much yet.The city has grown and fattened formidably.
I knew that the world would move forward without me, yet being subjected to irrefutable proof of the march of time still troubles me. And now is not the time to lower my guard.
I trail behind the squad of Knights, with Jimena at my side and mortal workers at the back. I half-expected them to look like a military squad mid-operation, but it seems that my disdain for Anatole is clouding my judgement. They move seamlessly in and out of the flow of people. Anatole is the rich scion of a merchant family while Aisha is a meek girl on an errand. Alaric is the smiling rake, robbing hearts and catching the attention as he goes. Alec plays the role of the silent thug, on his way to ruin someone’s evening and quite possibly, their kneecaps. He does not need any acting skill for that.
They fit in.
Only someone who would know to look for them could identify them. They do not even walk at the same speed.
Without incident, we leave the Vieux Carré behind and walk to the outskirts. The night gradually takes back its right and the deafening din of people lowers to a murmur. We come across fewer people and those who look at us lower their eyes and scurry away. They have good instincts.
The Lancaster’s mansion is dark.
Anatole lifts a fist and after a quick series of signs, Aisha and Alaric disappear to the sides. Alec recovers a shield and axe from a crate. I check around. The last bystander is hurriedly deciding to change path.
Hey, all the vampires in the squad have a name that starts with an A! Truly, Jimena does not belong. She should quit this silly notion of upholding the law across the globe and join with me instead…
I am interrupted in my subversive thoughts when the rest of the team moves forward. As a prisoner they are not authorized to leave behind, I have received clear instructions on how to proceed. They can be summarized as follows.
Stay right behind
Don’t get in the way
In fact, don’t do anything
Also, shut up.
The language was a bit more flowery, but the meaning was clear.
As soon as we pass the outer gate and the manor proper is in view, I can tell that something has gone wrong. One of the double doors of the entrance lies slightly opened and there are visible traces of damage. I can smell a faint scent of old blood beneath the usual roses and cedar. Anatole signs again and the others move. They stop at the threshold, inspect it for traps and get in.
After a few moments, I join them.
I have never seen the main hall so deserted. The place is empty and smells of dust and a bit of rot. There are no lights. A lone decorative amphora lies on the door, smashed. The door to Beaudouin’s study lies open.
The squad is somewhere, silently clearing the place. Their aura is masked and they are silent, so I am not sure where they went.
Slowly, I approach the study. I notice that the door has been forced.
The office is wrecked. Someone went through it with methodical violence. The bookshelves are empty, their contents spread on the ground. A spilled pot of ink made a stain that dripped on the carpet. All the paintings are on the ground. I notice that one of them was hiding a safe which is currently closed. It looks like somebody attempted to open it without success.
“You used to live here, yes?” asks a neutral voice. I school my reaction and turn to Anatole. The bastard crept up on me.
“I did, for about six months.”
“Can you think of any place where survivors might be hidden?”
Suddenly I am useful, and he is polite. I could inform him that he is welcome to find the nearest bundle of bayonets and sit on it, but I manage to control myself. The matter is serious.
“There is a panic room of sorts, behind the pantry.”
“Lead us there.”
I pass him by and make my way through the ground floor with the rest of the team in tow. Aisha and Alaric join us from the side alley, quickly signing what I assume is the code for “I ain’t found shit.” We move quickly and silently. Since I have the lead, I am extremely careful. There are no traps though. No steel lines drawn across the corridor, no hidden powder charges and no magic. Nothing.
What I do find are blood spots. People died here, but their corpses were disposed of.
I open the pantry door carefully after checking through the keyhole and sniffing it for good measure. I focused on my hearing in case somebody trapped it like that priest trapped his home back in Marquette. Still nothing. The pantry itself is well provisioned and from behind a cupboard, I hear breathing.
Something warns me and I move my shoulder before Anatole can touch it. I refrain from hissing. He is not looking at me but at the safe room. The squad carefully deploys while Alaric and Aisha remain in the corridor to guard the rear.
Anatole slowly slides the piece of furniture aside. It moves on prepared railings with little noise. Behind, we find an empty room and in it, one of the cattle in maid uniform sobbing uncontrollably. She stinks of old fear and sweat, she also relieved herself in one corner of the room. The stench is horrendous.
She disgusts me.
We make cattle by removing from them what we appreciate in humans. The irony of despising our own creations does not escape me.
The mewling human is still cowering as Anatole lights a lantern. She takes in his dark countenance and her tear-marked face turns ecstatic.
“Oh Master, Master, thank you!”
“Shhh. Tell me, what happened here?”
“Yes, yes of course. Where to start…”
“This place was attacked.”
“Ah, yes! The White Cabal found us. You know about them?”
“They assaulted during the day. The guards were quickly overwhelmed. Their vicious soldiers fought with no mercy. I was so scared!”
“They killed Sophie. She forgot to lock herself, she was just slumbering in a bedroom upstairs.”
Hold on. There were seven Lancaster vampires here when I arrived. Eight if you count the one that died in the fortress. I killed Charlotte the fat sow when I escaped, and Lambert in Marquette. Sophie the nitwit died here. That only leaves Moor, Melusine, Wilburn the rapist and Harold the bully. By the Watcher, I’m halfway done! What an auspicious night!
“They failed to locate the others since the resting chambers can only be opened from the inside,” the cattle continues.
Defense of a vampire nest is always the same. The enemy attacks at dawn. They need to successfully overcome the mortal defenders and then locate the vampires. We always sleep beneath the ground so it takes wit to find us and explosives to reach us. Sometimes, the mortals will also set the building on fire to slow down the assault like they did at the vampire fortress. If the attackers fail to eliminate everyone in time, the Lords and Ladies wake up first and they are usually displeased at the intrusion. I am talking about ripping your limbs off and bludgeoning your friends to a pulp with it levels of miffed. Then, as time passes, the situation grows more dire. It is a race against time, one that the White Cabal lost.
People who attack a fortress during the night are simply suicidal.
“The mages escaped quickly when they realized they could not get at our Masters. They left the unarmed ones alive.”
How very humane of them. I will have to remember this weakness.
“At night, Lady Moor ordered the others to pursue the Cabal and exterminate them. One of her mercenaries successfully managed to track the retreating group to a small hamlet North-West of here called Triste Chasse. Melusine was put in charge because Lambert is still not back from hunting that deviant.”
A Lancaster calling me deviant? Pot, meet kettle. I hear Jimena scoff lightly at my side. Thank you for the support, sister!
“What about Lady Moor?” asks Anatole.
“After the others were gone, she evacuated the building with Beaudouin, the new fledgling and a few others. I don’t know where they went, I swear!”
The squad leader is silent. I can tell he disapproves of a Lady leaving this insult unanswered. I can only assume that he and Moor are not acquainted, or he would know that she does not have a speck of honor. She does, however, care about her reputation. There must be more at play.
Anatole does not react at the mention of a fledgling. He already knows of her poaching activities.
“Why are you still here?” Anatole asks.
“I knew you would come back. I am here to serve, Master!” the cattle says with an empty smile. Her eyes are full of blind adoration. Most likely, she is too far gone to live by herself.
“Of course. You have done well.”
I can tell what is coming. All my instincts are screaming of it, yet I still raise a brow when the Knight decapitates her in one smooth summoning of his soul sword. The smile is still there on the detached head, manic and strained.
Anatole is expedient. I am not sure if I approve of the waste. On the other hand, she would have slowed us down.
“We follow protocol. Then we go after the attack group,” he continues.
The others nod, and we depart.
It turns out that protocol dictates that any compromised lair must be purged. As we leave, I turn to take one last glimpse at the blazing inferno engulfing the manor, enjoying every second of it. The devouring fire cleanses Lancaster presence and my memories from this place, the flames climbing up to the heaven in a great roar. They cast strange shadows on surroundings that used to be familiar and that I am now leaving behind.
Aaaaaah, yesssss. Enemy things set on fire.
I could watch this all night. It’s only missing a screaming Lancaster or two roasting on a pit to make it even more interesting. I could also laugh maniacally. Fortunately, I am a mature and devious Master vampire and I have no need of those artifices to feel satisfaction.
It would still be nice though. Ah well.
Our steps carry us North West through swampy ground and slums resulting from rapid expansion. Both the Mississippi to our South and the Ocean to our North conspire to make the air humid and oppressing. Our mortal followers fan themselves despite the late hour. Our guide, a local contact we picked up near the pier, leads the way. Sometimes, he turns around as if to make sure we were still here and flinches when some of us are. The squad patrols along our small convoy by group, so when the poor man checks on us, he never sees the same faces. The others come and go without a noise. After two hours at a brisk pace we come in full view of our destination.
Triste Chasse is a dump. It also means “sad hunt” in French which I hope is not prophetic. No more than two hundred people live here at any time, piled in squalid houses centered around a central pair of workshops and a small church. Our guide informs us that the city provides cheap ceramics and tablecloth for the whole county. I will admit that Marquette was not much to look at, but even I can tell this place reeks of misery, of people barely eking out a living. There is no paint, only a few decorations, and piles of refuse litter the place. I smell the stench of rubbish and filth even under the acrid scent of smoke.
That is the other important thing. Triste Chasse was the scene of a recent battle, of which traces can be clearly seen. Plumes of black fumes dot the city. More indicative of vampire presence, the church is missing, presumably collapsed.
“Form a camp. Hide,” Anatole orders, and the mortal assistants move to the side of the road with well-practiced ease. In the meanwhile, the Knights pick up their gear and leave for the seclusion of a thicket to get changed.
I now realize that I can never join their rank. Ever.
Now dressed in their armor and fully equipped, they spread out and disappear into the dense woods surrounding our destination. Jimena, Aisha and I are left behind, advancing at a sedate pace. The Vestal has her staff out and I feel magic coming from her, though it’s extremely subtle. I use the down time to lean towards my sister.
“So, hrm, do you always get naked in front of each other when you don your armors? Just like that?”
“By the Eye, you ogled us didn’t you, you little pervert.”
“Alaric has such a perfect butt…” she adds dreamily.
“Well, it’s rather nice I suppose,” I answer before slapping my mouth. Jimena does not say anything. Her “gotcha” grin speaks for her.
I got manipulated by Jimena of all people! Arg! I really need to focus or I’ll never manage to save Aisha tonight. I keep silent and look around until we enter the village proper. The outer ring of houses has been barricaded. Furniture and bags of half-finished cloth are in the way, yet there are no signs of violence here. The entire setting is bizarre. It looks like the city was ready for a siege, but no one warned the authorities. It could be Lancaster influence at work or else, something more sinister.
A hoot sounds to our right. We leave the first of three concentric circles of houses behind and move towards the sound. We also encounter our first victim.
“A White Cabal combattant,” Jimena comments.
The dead man is set against a wall, head bowed. He wears a white jacket stained with blood caused by multiple chest wounds, delivered with a blade. Sloppy work, that. A broken musket lies by his side. He does not have any gauntlet that I can tell.
“Not a mage then,” I whisper.
“Not all of the White Cabal can cast. Their ranks also contain foot soldiers. Do not underestimate them, their training is comprehensive and they are dedicated.”
I nod noncommittally. I rarely underestimate my opponents to start with.
We go on and I keep looking around, searching for any signs of hostility. I find none. What I do find are blood tracks. A lot of people died here, yet only a few bodies have been left behind. They could have run out of time to clear out everything, I suppose. My unease grows as the strangeness of the situation only increases. There is a lot here that makes little sense, and so I keep searching around for hints. I inspect every house we go by for runes, in case our foes managed to hide the spell’s auras. I check every window for movement in case they successfully masked their presence. So far, nothing.
It takes us only a minute to reach a taller house closer to the center, moving low and fast. Our destination is grander than any other edifice we saw so far. Why, the planks are even a bit varnished! The proprietor attempted to imitate Victorian house architecture with modest means and poor judgment. The resulting horror is what I would expect if a skinwalker could turn into a building and were caught mid transformation. It even smells a bit similar.
There really is no accounting for taste.
Shaking my head at this embarrassment, I follow the other two inside. The rest of the team has converged into a living room of sorts. Honestly, I would just call it a surviving room instead, it is far more fitting. The furniture is made from wobbly planks, the couches are slightly decrepit and there is a dented tea set on a table near the entrance.
As I enter, my nose revolts. At least half a dozen people died here, less than three hours ago. The blood is still sticky.
And in the middle of the room, there is a conspicuous pile of ash.
Four gone, three to go.
“Report,” says Anatole. The other members speak in turn. I learn that all the houses are empty, that there are tracks going out of the town’s only road, to the North, so the population was presumably evacuated recently. The church is completely gone, but the pot factory still stands, and its entrance and few windows are heavily warded. Of the Lancasters, there are no signs.
I do not pay much attention as the others exchange ideas on how to breach the workshop. If somebody is going to kill Aisha, taking us by surprise is still the best solution. I focus and look outside through windows.
And I find something.
“Excuse me,” I say, and the Knights turn to me. Before Anatole can tell me off, I point at a nearby house and say: “I would like to inspect this ruin.”
They all turn to see where I point at. My target is a half-collapsed home near the main road to the North, slightly closer to the center of the town. The destroyed church is right next to it.
“I’ll go with her. I want to look at their defenses,” says Jimena. I am once more grateful for her continuous help.
Anatole lets us go without a word and the squad resumes their preparations, no doubt happy to see the back of us outsiders. Not that being an absolute tit interferes with his chances at survival, Anatole has been unusually amenable. I shall enjoy it while it lasts.
Jimena follows me out. We move like shadows from cover to cover. At the edge of the road, she stops me.
“You do your thing; I want to look at the workshop.”
I nod and return my attention to the place I chose while she climbs a tree to get a better view.
I did not choose the place at random. Nothing happened so far, and the city is empty. The Lancasters no longer have the numbers to kill Aisha, so the White Cabal are the most likely culprits, especially since they killed at least one of their attackers. If I want to know more and get some measure of warning, I need to gather information and this is the best place to start.
The edifice in front of me shows extensive signs of battle. The logs that form its walls are pockmarked with bullet impacts and singed by more than a few spells. A White Cabal corpse lies near the entrance with half his head torn off, killed as he was getting in.
I move across the road and through the door. The smell warns me in advance, but the spectacle is still impressive. Inside, I find at least four tracks of blood where bodies have been dragged out.
There is also a pile of ash. Five down, two to go.
I am just a little bit worried now.
Besides the ash, only one body is left, and he is not White Cabal.
Decked in a leather armor dyed black, the man is young and athletic, with a short mop of raven hair. He fell against a pile of rubble then to the side. The cause of death is a bullet to the temple made by a small caliber, one of the many wounds on his person. I count three blade cuts and another two firearm shots besides the last. One that broke his left arm and another that grazed his flank. He went down fighting in a puddle of his own blood.
When I see him, I feel an inexplicable sense of loss. I push the silly emotion away, but it slithers back into my mind and settles there, increasing my apprehension. Something happened here. Something bad. I need to understand.
I notice that on top of an elaborate rapier, the fallen warrior also has a mage gauntlet of exquisite facture. A patch on his shoulder bears the stylized “L” that Lady Moor used as a seal for her important correspondence. A quick inspection reveals nothing else. No notebook, no convenient farewell letter.
Frustrated, I close my eyes and open myself to other senses. The stench is nothing unusual. Blood. Sweat. Feces. Spent gunpowder. The night is as silent as it can be in the middle of summer.
A pulse of magic comes from behind the man. At first, it was so weak that I dismissed it as a remnant of the numerous spells cast here, but I should have known better. I should have recognized the cold aura. I do now.
I pick the corpse under the arm and lightly lift it, before placing it carefully on his back. On a whim, I close the dark eyes one last time and position both hands on his chest. This simple gesture makes me feel better and I now realize why. The man fought to the end, and with his dying breath, covered another body. A shock of red hair and pale arm dotted with freckles emerge from the rubble, previously hidden by the fallen warrior.
Melusine, saved by the sacrifice of her Vassal.
I remove the heaviest logs of wood crushing her body, uncovering it. Her petite figure is covered by the female equivalent of the Lancaster leather armor. I pull a few sharp spikes from her body, flinging them away with droplets of black blood. It takes only a few moments for her regeneration to kick in, as the wounds were not too serious. A caving in her skull pops back with a nasty sound and she blinks awake.
She takes a deep breath in and whines in a broken voice. Uncaring of her surroundings, she crawls on the ground then on her knees towards the prone form. She keeps trying to breathe and say things, but only dry coughs emerge from her tortured throat. When she has reached her vassal, she sits on the side. With a shaky hand, she approaches a wound in his chest, then another, recoiling every time as if worried to hurt him. Her eyes finally find the hole in his head.
The shaky hand collapses into a fist, with which she weakly hits his shoulder. Then, she pushes on the body and tries to make him move, show signs that there is still life.
It takes a few seconds before she gives up. Her head dips until they touch forehead to forehead, and she wails. Her voice is weak and broken, so low that even Jimena should not be able to hear it. For a few minutes, she only cries, suffocates, then cries more. Her claws hold the fallen Vassal’s armor in a death grip.
Eventually, she stops.
When her face comes up, blood drips freely from her eyes and on the dead man.
Finally, she notices me. Her eyes find mine and she chuckles. It is not the laugh of amusement, but of someone who has gone beyond grief and emerged on the side of madness. No words are spoken. She bends her head, silent.
I understand yesterday’s intuition.
Forgiveness through shared loss.
This is what this is about, and the true question. Can I forgive her for who she is and admit that we now share something in common?
Is this it?
Should I forget my nature and who I am for a so-called better outcome? No. The very notion goes against all I have done, against everything I am. We Nirari do not forgive. We get even. No amount of pain and suffering will erase the debt, unless we inflict it ourselves.
With that said, there are several ways to get even and I do believe it is time for the smart one.
“As amusing as it is to see you crawl on the ground, I must interrupt you,” I say.
“What do you want?” she croaks without much conviction.
“For starters, tell me what happened here.”
“What didn’t happen… By the Eye… Arthur…”
I seize her neck between claws and press down in a gesture of submission that, with delicious irony, she taught me herself. She hisses but does not resist.
“What do you know?” she asks, panting slightly from the pain and the loss of her bond.
“You came here with Harold, Wilburn and your Vassal. You fought the White Cabal.”
“Yes. They had prepared the terrain well. We pushed them all the way back to the pot workshop and they barricaded themselves inside after we destroyed the church. It was Arthur’s idea to scorch it from afar, and it worked well. The holy ground was supposed to be their last redoubt. They did manage to kill Wilburn in a house. He disobeyed my orders. They lured him with a woman.”
That disgusting swine. Good riddance.
“Hold on,” I add, “why is Lady Moor not with you?”
“A trick. To make it short, I was on the verge of having her recalled to Manchester on charges of embezzlement. It wasn’t much, but it would have allowed me to take control of the local branch. The shrewd harpy must have guessed my intentions, because she captured and turned a talented White Cabal enforcer, only to send the rest of us to deal with the aftermath. She fled, didn’t she?”
“Bitch. Well, it doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing does.”
“Focus. How did the Cabal beat you? Do they have special weapons?”
Melusine scoffs, and sniffs, then unsuccessfully tries to wipe the blood from her cheeks.
“Stupid girl. Did I not tell you? We beat them, cut off their retreat. They found temporary refuge in the workshop.”
“If they did not defeat you, then who did? Who killed Harold and your Vassal?” I ask with no small amount of curiosity. Instead of replying, Melusine points a bloodstained claw to the North, towards the road.
A red light grows and grows there, increasing in intensity by the second. Soon, the sky is lit as if by a crimson dawn that does not reach the stars. The source comes into view. An army of torches lights the night with a vengeful radiance, some others move to the side and ignite the outer barricades, covered in cloth. From all around us, fires burn until the entire perimeter around the city is but one gigantic inferno, and from the North, the army of embers crests the edge of an incline, and its carriers come into view. At the forefront, sturdy men wield shields covered with crosses and silvery pikes, forming a wall. Behind, ranks upon ranks of musketeers in the uniform of the order of Gabriel march forward. They are led by a man on a horse wielding a battle standard upon which a winged archangel slays a horde of demons with cleansing light. His voice rings true.
“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell,
If he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people
But allowed Noah to live, and seven others, and rescued Lot from heathens,
Then the Lord knows to rescue the godly from trial and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of the judgement!
And that day has come!”
“Amen,” a hundred throats answer in unison.
I turn back to Melusine’s prostrate form, surprised that I managed not to gawk.
“That would be them,” she says laconically.